Taoiseach Micheál Martin has insisted he's not solely blaming the UK coronavirus variant for the surge in cases - acknowledging that socialisation over Christmas also played a role in transmission rates.
However, he said around 45% of samples of recent cases have shown presence of the new UK variant, suggesting it is still a major factor in the recent transmission rates here.
Mr Martin also said it's 'unfair' to suggest the Government should feel ashamed for their response to the virus before Christmas, and he doesn't believe mixed messages were sent out to the public.
He stressed the Government is now doing 'everything it possibly can' to get the virus under control again.
The Taoiseach was speaking as case numbers remain high, with 6,888 new cases and eight further deaths reported here yesterday evening.
There's also continuing pressure on hospitals, with Letterkenny University Hospital this morning apologising for leaving some patients waiting in ambulances yesterday for beds to become available.
Speaking on The Pat Kenny Show, Mr Martin said there's been a 'perfect storm' in terms of Christmas socialisation, the new UK variant of the virus, and potential seasonality factors contributing to the rapid transmission of the virus.
He defended the Government's decision to reopen hospitality and allow household visits in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
He said: “Ireland has been in a fairly prolonged period of restrictions of one kind or another… coming into the December period we had a six-week period of level five lockdown… before that we had level three.
“Various sectors and people did want relief from that lockdown… all parties welcomed the decision at the end of December.
“I think the levels came way down as a result of the level five lockdown [in November]… the measures worked. There were no mixed messages there."
He argued that the apparently more transmissible UK variant of the virus is a 'very significant factor' in the current surge, saying latest figures he has received from the Chief Medical Officer show 42 out of 92 tested virus samples detected the variant.
However, he said he 'accepts' that socialisation played a role in the current surge.
He told Pat: “We accept our responsibility, but we have acted at all times in responding effectively to the waves that have emerged.
“Our focus is in getting the current wave under control, getting the numbers down… relieving the pressure on our hospitals, and protecting the vulnerable and elderly in our community. That’s my entire focus now.
“Over time, people can reflect on this and make their observations and conclusions."
The Taoiseach said the idea off sealing off the border with Northern Ireland as a way to curb the virus has never been a 'realistic prospect'.
He acknowledged that the open border has been one difficulty in controlling the virus' spread, but it's 'very hard' to close it.
For now, Mr Martin said he's encouraging people to wear masks at all times in public.
He said: “I’ve always been an advocate for mask wearing on crowded streets, and in fact I would argue now that people out in amenity areas or out walking should wear masks as a general guidance."
However, he said the Government doesn't foresee making mask wearing compulsory when people are outdoors.
Elsewhere, Mr Martin said there are still cases of people not following the guidelines - and that it's 'quite extraordinary' that gardaí have had to intervene to break up parties.
Overall, however, he believes there's now 'far better compliance' from the public than before, and much less activity than there was even two weeks ago.